At 92 years of age, Walter Bruce “49” Simmons, Sr. has done a lot for his family, his community and for his personal legacy. But the quiet demeanor with which he carries himself would cause one to neglect knowing the true essence of the man he is without sitting down with him and engaging him in conversation. Underneath the soft-spoken personality lies the story of a man who has excelled in the sports arena, the area of community activism through his ties with the Frank Callen Boys and Girls Club, and in an impressive career with the local public-school system. Still, there are some important things that he still wants to share.
Simmons was born on October 29, 1926, the seventh of eight children, in the Old Fort section of Savannah on 518 East Oglethorpe Avenue. His father and mother had a fifth grade and a second-grade education, respectively. He was named after his father Wally Walter Simmons who was a captain on a riverboat that hauled freight from Savannah to Jacksonville, Florida and Charleston, South Carolina. Simmons did not get to know his father well because he died around the time he was seven years of age. However, the family always remained amazed at how their father was such an excellent student and writer with so meager an educational foundation. He did not get paid on the days that he was off from work.
He developed pneumonia and had to make the attempt to return to work before he was physically ready and succumbed to the complications of what originally had just been a bad cold. After his father passed, some of Simmons’ siblings wanted to go to work to help support the family, but their mother discouraged it and promised her children that she would make a way. She did.
As life progressed, Simmons took on a Superman like persona of his own. Most of his friends today call him “9” or “49” and the reasons for that name are two-fold. The first is linked to the bow-legged television character called “49” during the California gold rush time. Simmons was associated with him because he was also bow-legged as a youngster. Simmons would later go on to Alfred E. Beach High School where they did not have high school sports until his 12th grade year. Times were rough for black high school athletes then because although they could have sporting programs, the equipment given to them was second class and limited. He tells the story that each week, the coach only had eleven jerseys for his players. Therefore, how you practiced that week determined if you got a game jersey. However, during those uncertain times for players, there was one thing that was a given. Jersey number “49” was reserved for Simmons. In basketball, the same was true of number “9.” Because of his athletic prowess on the football field and the basketball court, people would always call him either “49” or just “9” because those were the sporting numbers he made famous from his time in Crawford Square and at Beach High. Simmons says that Beach High School educator, coach, and icon, Joe Greene, was always one of his heroes. “Greene had very little in the realm of facilities to work with his players. He took nothing and made something. With the little that he had, he was known for his legacy of building champions,” Simmons says. “I experienced that for myself.”
A career in education served Simmons well. He held a myriad of positions throughout his time in the classroom, in administration and as an executive for the school system. To his credit, he was quite successful in each endeavor. To add to his list of accolades, Simmons was a part of a three-person team that accomplished the accreditation of all elementary schools in the Savannah Chatham County Public School system. Prior to that accomplishment, all the elementary schools were under membership status of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), but none of them had received accreditation.
Simmons says that he has no regrets about his athletic or educational career or in the work he has done in his community. He has been inducted into three Hall of Fames: the Alfred E. Beach High Hall of Fame, the Boys Club of America Hall of Fame and the City of Savannah Area Athletic Hall of Fame into which both he and his older brother Frank were inducted at the same time. Furthermore, Simmons can also say that his influence has reached beyond earth as one of his former students, Marian Lee Johnson, whose name can be attached to the ladies featured in the book and movie Hidden Figures, was mathematically instrumental in helping astronaut John Glenn to orbit the earth and become the first American to do so.